Nationalist populism is a hostile reaction to globalization and its transformation of nation-states. As I argued in a previous Starting Points essay, what makes this movement “nationalist” is the angry sentiment among populists that elites today are rootless cosmopolitans who have betrayed their native countries. The “Davos Man” is despised because he supposedly regards all forms of national obligation as archaic and unfashionable. He thus feels no kindred connection to any one country. He feels no special responsibility for the wellbeing of any particular people. And he feels no nostalgia for the hinterland communities eroded by globalization. From the vantagepoint of national populists, the struggle for power is therefore as much about national liberation as it is revolution.
Nationalist populism is a rightwing movement that has been brewing for decades. Empirical research supports this interpretation, as does the schismatic history of conservatism investigated by Colin Dueck, George Hawley, and Peter Kolozi. Nevertheless, there are voices on the Left who similarly bemoan globalization’s destruction of America’s middleclass, its marginalization of indigenous peoples, and its commercial homogenization of the world. Some leftwing critics—including Leslie Sklair, William Robinson, Chrystia Freeland, and Robert Hunziker—have also raised concerns about the emergence of a transnational capitalist class:
The notion that a company or corporate executive or wealthy entrepreneur is bound by an allegiance to their country of origin is passé. The elite capitalists of today are bound to one another, not to countries. They meet at the same conferences, like the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or the The Bilderberg Group annual geopolitic forum, or in Asia it is the Boao Forum on China’s Hainan Island each spring, or the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, or Herb Allen’s Sun Valley gathering for media moguls, or the Google Zeitgeist conference, all defining the characteristics of today’s plutocrats; they are forming a global community, and their ties to one another are increasingly closer than their ties to the multitudes back home.
As with most contemporary political issues, we can look to the Founders for helpful insight and perspective. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson warned that “merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.” Five years later, in a discussion of immigration, Madison offered a similar perspective when he contrasted merchants with farmers and mechanics: “The mercantile class… are less permanently tied… to their new country by the nature of their property & pursuits… a translation of them to another being more easy.” Given the date of these statements, both men could have been thinking about the shocking number of American merchants who smuggled provisions to British forces during the War of 1812.
Madison’s critical opinion of merchants was long in the making. In the early 1770s, when hostilities between the colonies and the mother country were escalating, he complained about merchants trading with Britain rather than supporting the planned embargo. In Virginia, this was particularly true of the Scottish merchants who dominated the tobacco industry. These elites were frequently criticized for nepotism, price manipulation, predatory lending, political corruption, and luxury. In the 1780s, Madison remarked to Jefferson “the people are again plunged in debt to the Merchants.” He also grumbled to James Monroe that Britain’s monopoly over Virginian trade was now greater than before the revolution. The merchants were “almost all connected with that country,” and those who were not suffered fraud.
Madison’s suspicion of this commercial class would continue to swell the following decade. In a 1795 House debate on naturalization, he said that “there was no class of emigrants from whom so much was to be apprehended as those who should obtain property in shipping. Much greater mischief was to be feared from them than from any influence in votes, at an election.” Later that year, he spoke harshly of merchants who supported Jay’s Treaty, calling them “foreigners & demi-Americans.” Four years later, he described British commerce as “the great flood-gate of British influence,” which was penetrating the United States to “its remotest corners with a foreign poison vitiating the American sentiment, recolonizing the American character, and duping us into the politics of a foreign nation.” British influence was also sneaking into “city papers” because printers were deferential to their major advertisers, the “merchants and traders.” This poison then spread to the smaller towns since “the inland papers… copy from the city papers.”
Madison’s aversion towards merchants was thus crystallized by the time America’s second major conflict with Britain was heating up. Indeed, his regard for this profession seemed almost vengeful. Writing for the National Intelligencer in 1807, Madison conceded that the recently passed embargo with Britain would “certainly produce much inconvenience to the mercantile world,” but he felt little remorse for this outcome:
Can any legal measure be too strong for such a man; one, who to personal dishonesty adds a total destitution of patriotism; one, who to promote his own interest, can behold with indifference the wreck of his friend’s fortune, and the disgrace or ruin of his country?
To be clear, Madison did not loathe all merchants nor did he oppose commerce itself. In the same newspaper article, he said “solid, honest traders” would likely support the embargo, and he was hopeful “this body of men” included “a great majority of our merchants.” During the Revolutionary War, he praised several merchants for their financial support of a patriotic newspaper and the Continental Army. More generally, Madison was a commercial agrarian who recognized the necessity of international trade, even for a country whose political economy centered on yeoman farmers. He also theorized that “domestic commerce” along with other communicative activities like “a circulation of newspapers” could facilitate “a general intercourse of sentiments.” This, in turn, was necessary to generate an authentic public opinion capable of informing and restraining political elites.
Nevertheless, the deep suspicion Madison harbored for merchants is instructive to politics today. When critics raise concerns about global elites betraying their nation of origin, they are echoing Madison and Jefferson’s warning that merchants are rootless cosmopolitans, “who to promote” their “own interest, can behold with indifference” the ruin of their country. Contemporary examples might include American tech companies that lobby the government for cheap immigrant labor or peddle their surveillance technology to oppressive authoritarian governments. Other examples might include the corporations, lobbyists, and politicians responsible for outsourcing American manufacturing to foreign nations with fewer labor protections and fewer environmental regulations. Experts may debate the net benefits of free trade for the average citizen, but the coronavirus pandemic has revealed what should have been obvious—cheap goods from Amazon and Walmart do not offset the loss of key industries like the production of medical supplies.
Madison himself would be unsurprised to learn that billionaires and corporations are looking out for themselves. In Federalist 10, he posited that free societies will always experience the jarring struggle of self-interested individuals and factions. Nevertheless, in 1807 when Madison was attempting to shore up public support for the embargo, he surmised that merchants would be “honest and enlightened” enough to “perceive the indissoluble connection between their solid and permanent prosperity and the general welfare.” In this, he would be disappointed. The prolific smuggling activity of merchants confirmed the pessimistic assessment he offered a decade earlier: “The people” are “too often unheeded” by “a prudent regard to their own good as involved in the general and permanent good of the Community.”
Elites today similarly regard “their own good” as disconnected from the “general and permanent good” of national communities. However, this may owe to the technological and digitized forces of the 21st century rather than a deficiency of prudence. Once upon a time, the economic success of business elites and industrial nations required a flourishing middleclass. This is no longer the case due to automation and the extensive globalization of the economy (e.g., production, finance, markets, assets, shareholding, and profits). To offer just one piece of evidence, workers’ pay (real wages and benefits) has stagnated in the last 40 years despite the fact that economic productivity has significantly increased. Business may be booming for global elites, but this has meant little for the average American who has accumulated more debt than previous generations, and is facing more expensive costs in terms of healthcare, housing, and education.
The globalized economy of the 21st century has also changed how elites regard national identity. In the past, they wanted to preserve cohesive national communities of patriotic workers because the social capital this fostered was good for business. Conversely, elites today believe their wealth and power increases exponentially in a denationalized world of atomized consumers and tribalized identities. As Madison himself argued in 1787, an overly fragmented population is easily oppressed via a strategy of “divide et impera.” Perhaps the one exception to this preference for division is when elites are drumming up patriotic support for interventionist foreign policies.
What does this all mean for Americans today and the future of the United States? There are several key takeaways. If global elites do constitute a transnational nation, then we should heed Madison’s warning about merchants transforming “our country” by penetrating “to its remotest corners with a foreign poison vitiating the American sentiment, recolonizing the American character, and duping us into the politics of a foreign nation.” With this concern in mind, we should remember that globalization is as much an ideology as it is a process. To secure itself against populist threats, global elites must legitimize the process of globalization by convincing people that the ideals and policies associated with globalism are morally good, culturally satisfying, and economically beneficial. Yet, legitimacy only actually requires the illusion of public consensus, something Madison called the counterfeiting of public opinion. In large republics, he said “the combined industry of interested men” could deceive the people by distributing “artful misrepresentations” among them. He also said public opinion could be controlled and politically neutered by the silencing of dissent.
Given these concerns, we should also heed Madison’s warning about the power of merchant class to influence the press. With roughly 6 corporate conglomerates and 16 billionaires owning most of the mass media, with a handful of tech moguls owning the major social media companies, and with advertisers influencing the content of both—the power of global elites to sway the malleable and muzzle the resistant is truly frightening. Ironically, the Right seems to recognize the true nature of this threat whereas the Left has welcomed authoritarian speech controls from both the public and private sector. This was not always the case. Before the era of Woke Capital, liberals were deeply concerned about ruling class ideology and the power of wealthy elites to influence a corrupt media. How strange then, that when it comes to free speech, the Right has more in common with the remnants of the Marxist Left than it does with the progressive Left.
In any event, whatever one’s politics may be, Madison’s warnings about the mercantile class and its strategic use of the press should concern all Americans. So too should his warning about divide and rule politics. To preserve liberty for ourselves and future generations, we must become a vigilant citizenry that can hold elites accountable for corruption, incompetence, or negligence. Vigilance and accountability have become all the more important if elites are no longer “permanently tied to their… country by the nature of their property & pursuits.” Fortunately, there are scholars and pundits across the political spectrum who recognize this danger and have sounded the alarm. But instead of amplifying these voices, the media distracts and divides, ultimately subduing the American people with the circus politics dominating our headlines and digital newsfeeds. How convenient for elites that critics of globalism are routinely ignored, silenced, or denounced. Meanwhile, in a society of growing economic inequality shackled by debt, ailing in health, and exhausted by unnecessary wars, the leaders responsible for our national failures can rest easy knowing that public anger will continue to manifest horizontally rather than vertically.
Nicholas W. Drummond is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Black Hills State University. His publications have examined multiculturalism, the American Founding, and the influence of religion on American foreign policy. He teaches courses in American politics, political theory, and constitutional design.